Samuel Umtiti being linked to Barcelona was a surprise earlier this month.
The Olympique Lyonnais central defender still has a long way to go to be worthy of a first-team place in Luis Enrique's side, but he has shown, in some aspects of his game, reason for the current champions of Europe, and the world, to be interested in tracking his progress.
That's exactly what they have been doing, per Diario Sport, a newspaper based in the Catalan capital.
Sporting director Robert Fernandez attended the clash between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain at the start of March, and sources close to the former said he was there to watch Umtiti. Like many clubs have done in recent weeks.
According to Sport’s report, what Fernandez likes is that the centre-back can also play at left-back, like Jeremy Mathieu has at times.
What is sure is that Umtiti may well leave Lyon at some point soon. The 22-year-old was asked about his future by France Football, and responded, per talkSPORT:
At Lyon I went through all the stages from youth team to first team. I am proud to have done all that. Playing an entire career at the same club has become very rare. I rule out nothing. But if, after a while, I see the need to do something different, I will ask myself the question.
It has been widely stated that Barcelona are looking to sign a centre-back in the summer. Most recently by Sport's online editor Luis Mascaro, who wrote that they need a CENTRE-BACK, in capital letters.
Mascaro has made his choice clear. He would like Barcelona to bring in Athletic Club defender Aymeric Laporte, who would cost €50 million.
The French defender is 21, although would be 22 by next season, and is one of the most mature young players in the world. He has played four years in the Spanish top flight and is a tough prospect for opposition forwards to get past.
However, Athletic never let their players go cheaply, and Laporte’s minimum fee release clause is €50 million. By contrast, Sport believe Umtiti could be prised from Lyon for a little over €15 million.
Gerard Pique has developed into a true leader, but there is uncertainty about the players alongside him. Javier Mascherano has played out of his skin at centre-back, despite being a midfielder, though he will turn 32 in the summer.
Mathieu and Vermaelen haven’t made a firm case for deserving the role, and both are squad players, while it’s clear Luis Enrique doesn’t have a lot of confidence in Marc Bartra, who is often left out of the squad altogether.
Someone like Laporte or Umtiti could learn for a season, behind Mascherano and Pique, playing in the cup competitions, perhaps, before then taking things into their own hands the season after.
Umtiti has been building experience up at Lyon himself. He has played 163 times for the club, 140 of those at centre-back, 19 on the left, per Transfermarkt.
He has scored three times in 124 Ligue 1 appearances and once in 13 Europa League games.
Umtiti made his Champions League debut earlier this season, featuring four times in the group phase, twice against Zenit St Petersburg and once in games with Gent and Valencia. He was booked twice, and the defence failed to keep a clean sheet in any of the clashes.
The French side finished last in the group, though, so it wasn’t an easy task for him. Umtiti doesn’t mess around when playing at centre-back. He likes challenging for the ball, taking a proactive role in defence.
Other players prefer to back away and not to commit, but he likes winning it back quickly. If he comes into the Barcelona side, he would most likely be replacing Mascherano, so that intensity will be welcome. What will best appeal to Barcelona is how he likes to get forward.
The defender has no qualms about dribbling with the ball or taking on a man, especially when playing at left-back. He can finish, too.
Being composed on the ball is a big plus point when it comes to fitting in at Camp Nou. Ligue 1 expert Andrew Gibney told Bleacher Report: "Breaking through as a left-back, he has maintained his ability with the ball at his feet, stepping out from the back four to push the ball forward.
"In France, there is a similarity between the way centre-backs and defensive midfielders play the game. You need to be comfortable in possession, Umtiti is a great example of that."
Umtiti has scored from the edge of the box against PSG and showed great persistence to finish at the second attempt when playing Troyes.
However, his best goal came in the Europa League against Premier League side Tottenham. He struck a swerving volley into the top corner.
The defender has shown good leadership qualities, even at his tender age, when he spoke to the media about a supposed rift between the new arrivals at the club and the players that were already there. Per ESPN FC, he told French radio station RMC:
There's certainly a problem. And if there is one, then maybe we'll have to discuss it amongst ourselves. But we really have to look after what happens on the pitch first. Everyone knows that in a squad, certain players get on better with others. It stops there though. You don't need to read more into it than that.
As long as we rise to the occasion on the pitch, that's the main thing. Outside, whether you get on well with someone or not, that's not important. I think if we had won games this would never have been talked about.
Wise words for a young player, and arguably he'll be more comfortable from a media point of view than two of the current defenders. Pique's incendiary tweets and Periscope videos have lit up the social networks, delighting Barcelona fans but making the press officers' lives tougher.
Mathieu, meanwhile, went through a spell of not being able to speak to the media without causing trouble. He upset his coach, Luis Enrique, by saying he was “surprised” to start at left-back in the Clasico, according to RTL (h/t Goal.com). Luis Enrique hit back, saying that if Mathieu was surprised to play in that position, "we should pack up and go home," per Reuters (h/t Guardian).
Then he was the first official source to reveal details about a training ground row involving Lionel Messi early in January, telling RMC, per Goal.com: "It happened when we got back from our holidays. Suddenly, Leo lost his temper after a foul that was not given in training. Things got tense and they exchanged some angry words."
Gibney points out how he has become a natural leader on the pitch too, adding: "Umtiti is still relatively young for a commanding centre-back, but reads the game extremely well. He is an excellent man-on-man defender, but with the mobility and pace to recover and anticipate.
"He has become a natural leader in the Lyon defence, helping the more experienced Mapou Yanga-M'Biwa get over his shaky start to the season. With Umtiti at the heart of the back four, Lyon not only have a strong, physical presence, someone who is dominant in the air, but he is calm in possession."
Umtiti will be hungry to win, too, ready to take a step forward in his career.
It’s clear there are many positives he may be able to bring to Barcelona, and that’s why they scouted him, but the question remains over whether he would eventually be good enough to hold down a place in the Catalan giants’ team if he was signed.